Critic After Dark

The Favourite
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
YORGOS LANTHIMOS’ latest film The Favourite may be his oddest yet if you stop and consider his work so far, from breakthrough feature Dogtooth (about a family teaching a skewed view of the world to its walled-in children) to the recent The Killing of a Sacred Deer (about a curse hovering over a physician’s family), where metaphorical fantasy and (better yet) the much odder machinations of human nature give his films a memorably loopy spin.
To fantasy and human perversity now add history: Lanthimos agreed to do a script by first-time author Deborah Davis (this is basically her baby) and veteran TV scriptwriter Tony Macnamara — one of the rare times the director is working with material that wasn’t his, and without frequent collaborator Efthymis Filippou. Also perhaps the first time Lanthimos is working in nonfiction mode (unless you count his contribution to Venice 70: Future Reloaded) and with characters he didn’t create out of the whole cloth of his imagination.
The result is reassuringly accessible, and Lanthimos has been promptly rewarded: The Favourite earned some $70 million in the tills — the biggest business done by any film in his career — and been nominated for a slew of goldplated sex toys (okay — “Oscars”) and (more credibly) the Grand Jury prize at Venice.
And it is fun: Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) asks cousin Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) — close advisor and childhood friend of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) — for a job at the royal court. Sarah, out of a grudging sense of pity, gives Abigail the lowly position of scullery maid; Abigail takes advantage of the opportunity and with a swiftly concocted herbal poultice applied to a bad case of royal gout wriggles her way into the queen’s notice and up the court’s social ladder. The ensuing conflict — between tyrannical Sarah and up-and-coming Abigail over the hapless (if hardly innocent) Anne is like a vicious unexpectedly funny dogfight: when Sarah in the middle of a pigeon shoot suddenly aims a flintlock pistol at Abigail and fires you know anything can happen, and probably will.
That said, you have to ask: does Lanthimos improve with all the guardrails surrounding him? I’m not sure. Dogtooth was my first encounter and it could be the shock of the new but his felt like a unique voice, by turns mysterious and horrifying and funny, sometimes all three at the same time. With later films — The Lobster, Killing of a Sacred Deer — he was resorting to more elaborate effects, to apparently lesser results. Magical transformation into animals? A progressively debilitating curse? I was ultimately disturbed but it took considerably more and more effort on his part to get me to that state each successive time, and the sight (and stench) of his flop sweat was unbecoming.
With Davis’ and Macnamara’s script, Lanthimos regains some kind of balance: nothing supernatural about the shenanigans in this film, though the director does feel fit to cram some 20 or so anachronisms in the margins of the frame (costumes featuring African-inspired black and white patterns; servants that work while wearing recycled denim; Sarah pulling a courtier onto the dance floor to vogue to classical music). It’s bizarre but not half as bizarre as the drama in the foreground: apparently there was a Sarah Churchill and she did vie for Queen Anne’s favor with cousin Abigail Hill (later Masham); apparently Anne did have 17 children, none of which survived to grow into adulthood. The 17 rabbits Anne keeps in their memory is a writer’s invention (in the 17th century the animals were more likely killed or eaten than cared for) but also an implicitly powerful metaphor: silly decadent pets that you can’t help but laugh at till you realize they’re a mother’s way of remembering her children.
By film’s end (skip this paragraph if you plan to see the picture!) I’m guessing Lanthimos felt the need to cut loose and does: Abigail ends up ascendant, and decides to celebrate her hardwon power by mashing a bunny to the floor with her heel; Anne, knowing what she’s done, demands that Abigail kneel and — with royal hand firmly clutching the young woman’s head for support — massage her gouty legs. A humiliating reassertion of the power structure with neither women fully satisfied and a superimposed image of rabbits hopping about — Lanthimos’ way I suppose of reminding us that for all of Anne’s cruelty she’s emotionally invested in these animals, and can we blame her for responding when Abigail abuses the creatures? All nicely unsettling, but for a moment Lanthimos loses his sense of humor and is being merely sadistic. The film, so admirably poised between the grotesque and the grossly comic, falls flat on its powdered face.
Still! May not be my favorite Lanthimos — it’s the filmmaker taking conventional (if well wrought) material and giving it a cockeyed arthouse sheen — but one of the oddest and by far funniest of recent biopics. One of the best of last year? Easily.